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A Poem by the Portuguese poet Ana Luísa Amaral
It is hard to speak about contemporary European Poetry without differentiating between countries and even regions of countries. The same thing, of course, holds true for American poetry, though in different ways, especially if we – as we should – take an inclusive view of the Americas, not just looking at North America, and certainly not just at The United States. Though this inclusive view gives rise to other problems, since Latin and South American poetry are closer to European poetry culturally, linguistically and in terms of poetic heritage than they are to North American poetry. So the inclusive view of the Americas doesn’t work as well as it does in Europe. That said, the whole adventure of talking about poetry as a somehow national expression can lead to some murky territory.
One of the things that does distinguish European poets from each other (and from American poets) is how they deal with their own national mythologies and the cultural identities that these have give rise to. This is tucked seamlessly into the specific cultures and their provenance in what we might call deep histories, which begin to form in pre-historical periods in Europe and become codified in Medieval Europe, whether in written or oral forms, whether in Latin or in the indigenous vulgates of the fragmenting empire, or in the many other cultural-linguistic variations in early Medieval times: Anglo-Saxon, the peripheralized languages of the Celts and the Picts, Norman English, as well as Medieval Hebrew and Arabic in Iberia. All of this is up front and present in contemporary European poetry since it is still part of the collective imaginations of Europeans – reinforced, as it were, in architecture, the durability or unveiling of ancient constructions and the material landscape generally. Constantine Cavafy is one of the great examples of that capacity for poets to occupy two worlds; or perhaps it is their capacity to see history as a present, layered and living reference. Zbigniew Herbert is another example, with his Mr. Cogito persona, a kind of modern censor-proof René Descartes, very much and Eastern cousin of Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste.
Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese modernist, was preeminent in understanding, instinctively, the way a slew of styles, predilections, and concerns can well up from the depths of history; how contemporary Portuguese and European politics were inflected by ancient legal codifications; how poetic traditions could range from the Primative to the Romantic to the Neoclassic and cultural leanings from the nationalist to the cosmopolitan. He understood how the fluidity and overlapping of 2000 years of culture could flourish within the imaginários of single individuals. So forcefully did his poetic character embrace the extravagance of history that he actually fleshed it out in a panoply of what he referred to as heteronyms, literally different poets, three or four of whom would have been major poets in their own right.
Like many of her contemporaries Ana Luísa Amaral is steeped in Portuguese and European history as she is in the quotidian realities of a continent perpetually under the stress of competing interpretations. As a scholar and professor specializing in American poetry, she also has the advantage of seeing in from the outside, and addressing her own predicament through a range of Anglo-American filters. She writes as fluently about herself, motherhood and the odd melancholy of the Portuguese psychic landscape as she does about national myths and its cast of characters. The Pessoan trope of simultaneity is almost hers by birthright. It is difficult in her work to disentangle irony from the seriousness and ballast of a copious and ranging style, nor am I sure one would want to.
The poem below takes up the subject of Pedro and Inês, Portugal’s Romeo and Juliet. The story, briefly, is about a mid 14th century Prince who not so secretly carries on an affair with his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Inés Peréz de Castro, fathering four children with her. When his wife, Constance of Castile, daughter of the King of Castile’s cousin, dies (the marriage had created an alliance between two peninsular powers), Pedro insists on marrying Inês. This is unacceptable to his father, King Afonso IV, since it would have threatened the alliance with the Castilians. Afonso arranges to have Inês murdered by four of his thugs, a task which is brutally carried out in the Monastery of Santa Clara (still standing in all of its imposing grandeur right across the river from where I live). Civil war is the result; eventually the war comes to an end but Pedro is never reconciled with his father. He created two ornate marble sarcophagi that face each other in the Monastery of Alcabaça. Inês’s mortal remains were transferred there and eventually, upon the death of Pedro, he was buried there as well. The tombs, which are set foot to foot, were arranged so that on Judgment Day, when both arise, they would see each other before anything else.
The dignity, seriousness and tragedy of the story are a given, simply because they are part of the common domain, in the possession of every schoolchild in the country, a lot of whom will have seen the evidence for themselves in the twin tombs. As with so much of Cavafy’s work, Amaral is saved from the task of explanation and her story begins in media reis. Her chief expressive weapon is the no-nonsense tone, at once intimate and slightly fed-up, which cuts through the solemnity of a story that usually remains unmediated in the minds of the Portuguese.
Inês and Pedro: Forty Years Later
It’s late, Inês is old.
Pedro’s bunions rule out hunting,
so he spends the whole day gravely grumbling:
“Woman I so loved, the boar is tough!
There are no more descent boars in the demesne
and you lost that passionate touch for seasoning
But Inês is not even listening:
not only because her hearing aid is badly adjusted,
but also her exhaustion is vast
and her husband’s weave of words
slides, mournfully, from her knees
which long ago were delights,
but which now
are so reticent with arthritis.
Inês is old, alas,
and Pedro has cramps in his left ankle.
And that wandering fantasy
which attacks him, about being young
(when the flame was high and the heat
swelled in his breast),
of seeing Inês in her coffin
and her hands kissed by ruffians
that has so cruelly stabbed her:
just a fantasy,
some refulgence that he well knows is a sickness
of his imagination.
What he wanted now
was a good steak
of tender boar
(and to be free of this horror of melting
Wiser and more prudent (three teeth missing
Inês is eating oatmeal porridge
The story is turned into the story of everyman, or every couple, living out their years, fed on memories. Tragic history is recast as a “sickness of Pedro’s imagination,” an idée fixe, which, even in old age, he is helpless to rid himself of. This is mixed in with the more immediate concerns about Inês’ seeming indifference and of getting a good late 14th century lunch of wild boar and, probably, though it is not mentioned in the poem, turnip greens.
This poem (in its original Portuguese, along with my translation) was first published in the magazine Pessoa, in December 2010.
More information about Ana Luísa Amaral and another poem can be found at The Poetry International Web if you follow this link: http://portugal.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=6096